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Va-Yishlah 5772

Haftarah Parshat Vayishlah
(The Book of Obadiah)
December 10, 2011
14 Kislev 5772

The book of Obadiah is a one chapter prophecy aimed as retribution at the nation of Edom for the treacheries it perpetrated again the Jewish nation, Judah, when the First Temple was destroyed. It is a prophecy that does not mince words. It speaks of vengeance. Its malice toward this duplicitous nation is tangible, as we note in the following verses: “If thieves were to come to you, marauders by night, they would steal no more than they needed. If vintners came to you, they would surely leave some gleanings. How utterly are you destroyed! How thoroughly searched out (nehpesu) is Esau, how ransacked (niv’u) his hidden treasures (matzpunav). 1:5-6)

The nation of Edom was seen as the descendants of Esau. In the rabbinic period, the negative imagery associated with Esau and Edom was transferred to Rome, the Jews’ arch-enemy at the beginning of the Common Era. The rabbis viewed the Romans as the perpetuators of the behavior they associated with Esau.

The Hassidic tradition, known for its psychological interpretations, represents the latest stage in the development of these associations. In the following teaching, Rabbi Zadok HaCohen from Lublin (19th-20thcentury) links Esau with the Yetzer Hara or evil inclination found in each person: “What distinguishes Esau (the evil inclination in a person) which is hidden even from the person himself? He (it) is like a pig which has one non-kosher characteristic (it does not chew its cud) and one kosher characteristic (it has split hooves). When confronted, he spreads forth his paws to indicate that he is kosher (hiding his non-kosher aspect), until God comes and uncovers (a play on the word – nehpesu) his secrets (even to Esau himself) since no one else is capable of discovering them, as we note in the verse from Obadiah: “How thoroughly searched out (nehpesu) is Esau, how found out are (niv’u) his hidden inclinations (matzpunav).” This verse indicates that a person has inclinations that are hidden from the eyes of ordinary people, requiring God to reveal them since He knows our inner most secrets, especially since people are inclined to fool themselves into thinking that what is wrong in them is really right.” (adapted from Resisei Laylah 18:2 Har Beracha ed. p. 22)

According to this teaching, our greatest enemy in life is inherent in our very nature. We naturally contain an element in our personalities which is duplicitous like Esau of old. It sometimes misleads us into thinking that that which is wrong is really right. It sometimes makes us think we are righteous or kosher when we really are not and it takes uncommon strength to rid ourselves of this character fault. God is the one who gives us the inner strength to turn ourselves around, to recognize our inner duplicity and to become whole again.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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